NEENAH - If you ask Alicia Langlois, she would tell you she and Anabelle Hodges are very close; practically BFFs — best friends forever.
The two Neenah High School students have known each other since middle school. Last year, they ate lunch together and they have mutual friends in their neighborhoods so they all hang out together.
Not everyone gets to take a trip to Orlando, Florida, with their best friend while still in high school, but Alicia and Anabelle will get the chance in June when they join two teachers from the Neenah Joint School District to represent Wisconsin at the Special Olympics.
Jenni Oeftger, who teaches at Shattuck Middle School, will be joining Alicia and Anabelle at the games as Wisconsin’s representatives for Unified Champion Schools — a program that promotes inclusion by bringing students with disabilities and those without together to play sports.
Chad Oeftger, a special education teacher at Neenah High School, has been selected as the head softball coach for Team Wisconsin at the Special Olympics USA Games.
Jenni, Alicia and Anabelle will talk with people from all over the country about what unified sports look like in Neenah. They'll also learn new ideas about how other schools in other states make sports more inclusive.
One example of how Neenah makes sports more inclusive is its annual unified student vs. staff basketball game. Alicia plays on the student team — which is coached by Chad — that faces off against a team of faculty members.
"It's really cool because I get to go against the teachers and have fun with the different athletes," she said.
The event draws people from all over the high school together, Anabelle said, including the girls volleyball team, which does a halftime show. Jenni said the event has grown over the years and is "one of the coolest events we do here in Neenah."
In addition to sharing all of the awesome work being done in Neenah already, Anabelle is looking forward to hearing more about inclusion activities and ideas other schools do that could be incorporated into what Neenah is doing.
Alicia said she’d love to make connections with people and someday see them visit Wisconsin — especially in the winter — to see the work already being done to bring all students together. For example, one of her favorite memories goes back to middle school when she attended an inclusive sledding event.
This will be Alicia's and Anabelle’s first trip to the USA Games, but it won’t be Chad’s first time coaching. At the 2018 games, he was an assistant basketball coach.
Chad will have four other coaches helping him lead a team of 15 athletes from across the state. Like anyone would for the Olympics, Chad said the athletes are on a training regimen that includes practicing at least once a month. He wants to help the athletes be healthier individuals.
Thinking ahead to the games, Chad said he looks forward to seeing the athletes' faces as they compete.
“They are mega-happy and proud to represent Wisconsin,” he said.
Even though Alicia, a four-sport athlete, won’t be competing in Orlando, she said she’s hoping there will be time for them to cheer on Chad’s team and the other athletes representing Wisconsin.
Between now and June, there will be leadership and advocacy workshops and a kickoff event in Oshkosh to get to know other people in the state who are going to the games, Jenni said. There's also some fundraising to do before the four make their way to Florida.
Team Wisconsin is close to its $50,000 goal, but donations can still be made online.
Neenah's representatives have their own individual donations pages, too. They can be found here:
Alicia's page: https://give.classy.org/TWAliciaLanglois
Anabelle's page: https://give.classy.org/TWAnnabelleHodges
Chad's page: www.classy.org/fundraiser/3551572
Jenni's page: https://give.classy.org/TWJenniOeftger
This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Special Olympics: Four from Neenah part of Team Wisconsin at USA Games